Frontline World

Mexico - The Deadly Standoff, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
The View From Two Remote Villages chapter 1 chapter 2
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When the Zapatista rebellion broke out in 1994, the Mexican army turned to experts in the United States and other countries for help in training its soldiers for unconventional warfare.

Just a few days after our interview, I squeeze into a Chevy Tracker, alongside Blanca Martínez, for the trip to Usipá, a village that once posed real dangers for people like her. She expresses a bracing no-nonsense attitude about her work. "Last year, we couldn't even enter the town," she says matter-of-factly as dust flies in the open window. "The villagers told us that (paramilitary) Paz y Justicia members were going to shoot at us if we gave any workshops on human rights. So we turned around. We'll see how we do this time."

By the time I took this trip, I had read the history and picked through formerly classified documents to understand the basic outline of the story. I was particularly interested in how the Mexican army, poorly prepared for fighting the Zapatistas in the jungle, received support from the United States, Argentina and Chile, for help in training its soldiers for "unconventional" warfare. Israel, Great Britain and Spain also provided training for the Mexican army during this period.
formerly classified intelligence report about Chiapas

An excerpt from a formerly classified intelligence report about Chiapas, released by the U.S. Army. [Click to enlarge]

In the early months of the rebellion, military analysts from the United States were even speculating about conditions that might lead to direct intervention in Chiapas. The authors of an assessment marked "secret and confidential" note that "the history of U.S.-Mexican relations makes it highly unlikely that Mexicans would welcome" intervention from the north. They add: "Only a request by the Mexican government for military assistance to deal with a crisis is likely to overcome this bias. Thus, it is conceivable that a troop deployment to Mexico could meet with a favorable reception if the Mexican government faces the threat of being overthrown as a result of widespread social and economic chaos."

U.S. military training and aid to Mexico during this period influenced the formation of an elite new special forces team known by its Spanish acronym, GAFE (Airborne Group of the Special Forces). I'd learned that between 1996 and 1999, some 3,000 GAFE soldiers attended courses in counternarcotics and special operations at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, N.C. (When I asked, a senior officer at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City told me this type of training was intended strictly for counternarcotics purposes, and was provided only at the request of the Mexican government.)

During this period, the school published a news bulletin announcing the formation of "special forces" schools for GAFE soldiers, which would place a "particularly heavy emphasis" on preparing soldiers who were fighting in Chiapas. In January 1996, the bulletin (published by the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Ks.) noted criticism of U.S. involvement in the training in Mexico and elsewhere. Its authors added: "Other observers have hailed the professional-development process and what they hope will be an open and closer U.S.-Mexican military relationship that promotes cooperation in dealing with common security problems." (See the bulletin on the Foreign Military Studies Office Web site.)

We travel past giant ferns and ceiba trees. Martínez tells me that the scars from the counterinsurgency campaign have yet to heal in Usipá. Seven years ago, Paz y Justicia members allegedly murdered several community members who opposed the PRI, which was then the ruling party. Fearing for their lives, 475 villagers fled Usipá in the middle of the night. Families of the victims haven't been able to forgive and forget. More than 2,200 people in the area were displaced by warfare during that period -- some fled deeper into the jungle, others sought shelter in makeshift refugee camps. The paramilitary groups, with the protection offered by local PRI bosses and the military, effectively closed down the local churches, controlled all roads and ruled the area with impunity.
Jorge López López and his family

Jorge López López and his family say that because they are Zapatista sympathizers, they still feel threatened by right-wing paramilitary members.

This may not be a textbook case of the way low-intensity war is supposed to be fought. But the Mexican army did train indigenous recruits in how to use weapons, how to work as informants and how to gather intelligence about their neighbors. By the late 1990s, at least a dozen right-wing proxy groups were operating throughout the state. Most of the irregular fighters are firmly convinced, Martínez says, that their current poverty is a direct result of the Zapatista rebellion.

As we near the village, the washboard surface gives way to a stony, makeshift road that leads steeply up a granite mountainside. Even our four-wheel-drive vehicle has trouble making the journey. We've climbed from the oppressive humidity of the jungle, with bird calls and hanging parasite cacti all around, into a dry stultifying heat. Martínez looks relieved when we make it into town without incident. We head up to a hut constructed of tree-branch walls and a corrugated tin roof.

While members of the human rights group set up to make a presentation inside the hut, I stay outside to talk to the men gathering around. Jorge López López, a 34-year-old farmer whose ethnic heritage is Ch'ol, one of dozens of Mayan groups, approaches me as I'm talking to the others. I turn to ask him how things have changed in recent years, particularly under the reform administration of President Vicente Fox. "We have a different government now, but we're still too frightened to work in the fields," he says quietly. "There are still men wearing army fatigues who threaten my family every time I go to the milpa."

Threats of Violence on Both Sides

López López describes himself as a Zapatista sympathizer. But he also says that he now accepts government aid packages because he can't feed his four children on corn alone. He takes me to meet his family. They live in a simple thatched hut with a dirt floor and no running water. His wife hasn't had the courage to speak much since her brother was murdered, allegedly by Paz y Justicia fighters, in 1996. His smallest baby stares at me blankly, his distended belly hanging over his diaper. "My daughter gets threatened at school. They say they are going to kill us because we're members of the opposition," he says.

He adds that displaced people in Chiapas have no rights because the Mexican government does not legally recognize them as refugees, despite the United Nation's recognition of their status as "internally displaced persons." The welfare of the 10,000 displaced people in Chiapas is a perplexing issue. Organizations like the International Red Cross have been supplying food for years, but with other global conflicts raging, these streams of support could dry up.
"My daughter gets threatened at school. They say they are going to kill us because we're members of the opposition." - Jorge López López, Mayan farmer

I leave the group in order to take a detour to the hilly city of Tila. Just 10 miles down the road, I pass several humvees filled with soldiers, some of whom are questioning a group of women hanging laundry out to dry. I'm headed to Tila because it served as the headquarters of the once-powerful Paz y Justicia. During the organization's heyday -- from 1997 to 1999 -- the state government funneled at least $460,000 in "development funds" to the group through a farmer's collective, according to a congressional report.

An hour later, I arrive in Tila. Signposts are crowded with electoral propaganda for the PRI. It's nighttime and men gather around my vehicle, asking me why I've come. I explain, a bit nervously, that I've come to talk to Raymundo Hernández Trujillo, a former Paz y Justicia member who served as a PRI state legislator from 1999 to 2001. Hernández Trujillo was born and raised in Tila.
Raymundo Hernández Trujillo

Raymundo Hernández Trujillo, a former PRI state legislator who played a role in Paz y Justicia, poses in his home.

It takes several hours to find him. He's watching television with his wife at home. He invites me into his living room, which is painted the color of papaya. The fan's going, twirling around sodden air. I start off slowly, asking him what really happened in the Zona Norte a few years ago.

"Look, the EZLN [Zapatistas] started killing people first," he says right off. "Tila got famous after all the human rights groups started coming here...the headlines kept saying that Tila was a bastion of paramilitaries," he adds, his tone rising.

Even though Paz y Justicia has been disbanded officially and Hernández Trujillo no longer holds political office, he's still a powerful local leader. His tone makes me hesitant to push much further, but I ask him one more question, about whether Paz y Justicia recruits ever trained with the Mexican army for counterinsurgency warfare. He grimaces. "Let them prove it. I mean, these days even [Chiapas state governor] Pablo Salazar can come to Tila without worrying about his safety. I don't see what they're complaining about."

NEXT: Looking for Answers

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Vincente Fox
Paramilitary Groups
Indigenous People